May 15, 2017 / 10:16 PM / 3 months ago

Foreign diplomacy realities may impede Macron's European ambitions

FILE PHOTO - French President Emmanuel Macron waves from his car on the Champs Elysees avenue after the handover ceremony in Paris, France, May 14, 2017.Francois Lenoir

PARIS (Reuters) - When Emmanuel Macron rode down the Champs Elysees after his inauguration in a military jeep and not the customary limousine, France's youngest postwar president sent a message that on his watch Paris will be strong and determined in its diplomacy.

Yet while the symbolic gesture marked a break with tradition, the substance of the 39-year-old's foreign policy may in fact be more about continuity.

A newcomer to international diplomacy, Macron has assumed control of a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council as crises persist in Syria, Libya and North Korea.

His foreign policy drive will focus on Europe. An advocate of closer European Union integration, Macron backs a "multi-speed" Europe, an idea that has seen growing support in Germany and other EU countries since Britain voted to leave the bloc.

In the past, France has often been seen by its allies as an intransigent, go-it-alone power because of its military interventions in arenas like Libya, the Middle East and the Sahel. Macron wants deeper security cooperation with Europe, but he may find it hard to break the mould of predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We know that in the world in which we live in it's not the president who imposes foreign policy, but foreign policy that imposes itself on the president," said Francois Heisbourg, a Macron adviser and chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Macron flew to Berlin in his first full day in office on Monday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel over how to inject new life into the Franco-German relationship and the troubled European project.

He expressed hope France and Germany would within weeks draw up a roadmap to deeper EU integration and said reform of the bloc's treaties would no longer be seen as a taboo in France. [nL8N1IH4YN]

Later in the week Macron will visit thousands of French troops fighting Islamist militants in West Africa, three years after they first deployed to Mali.

Before the end of the month, he will meet U.S. President Donald Trump and attend NATO and G7 summits in Brussels and Sicily.

A significant shift in French diplomacy was unlikely, one French diplomat said.

"I don't think there will be a major break from the past," the diplomat told Reuters. "All the main subjects will see continuity."

CLOSER EUROPEAN COOPERATION

It is on Europe, said Heisbourg, that Macron wants to be judged. His diplomatic sherpa is seasoned Europhile and career diplomat Philippe Etienne who just spent a three-year spell as ambassador to Germany, and is a fluent Russian speaker.

Meanwhile, Macron insiders say that as well as a foreign minister he may nominate an influential European affairs minister.

Macron's wish for deeper European security cooperation sets him apart from his predecessors, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, whose top diplomats often privately derided their counterparts in Brussels.

"Macron intends to get Europe out of its rut," Sylvie Goulard, a French lawmaker in the European Parliament tipped for a high-ranking ministerial role, told RFI radio.

Diplomats say Macron will want to push for a common EU position on issues from the migration crisis to Syria's civil war, and from U.S. President Donald Trump to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

"Take Russia. Beyond agreeing on sanctions everyone sees things differently," said a diplomat. "A real joint EU position on Trump is also key because that relationship defines so many policies ranging from trade to terrorism or Syria."

While Macron will remain a reliable ally of Washington, he will not be as close to the White House as Sarkozy and to a lesser degree Hollande were deemed to have been.

"We will not take our orders from Washington or Moscow or anywhere else," said a source close to the president.

France shoulders the bulk of European military operations overseas. Macron has vowed to increase France's military spending to meet its NATO commitment of 2 percent of national income.

He promises France will not let up in the fight against Islamist militants, and signaled he will decide on military interventions on a case-by-case basis. He also wants to do more to help struggling nations develop, diplomats say.

"Macron will not be satisfied by just bombing terrorists and then not following it up with a wider policy to support those countries," said a second diplomat. "That would be a change from now."

Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Andrew Callus and Richard Lough

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